Coach Pam Borton said the Gophers' women's basketball team will look completely different this season, with one important exception. Point guard Rachel Banham will remain the axis around which everyone else revolves, after being named the Big Ten freshman of the year.
Borton said Friday that the Gophers will be faster, tougher, deeper and more versatile than the team that went 19-17 last season. The return of forward Kayla Hirt from a knee injury -- and some confident freshmen who are ready to play immediately -- will give Banham a stronger supporting cast than she had during a sensational rookie season. Nor is Banham standing still; she said she is eager to improve upon last year, when she led the Gophers with 16.1 points per game and was their most reliable performer.
The Gophers opened practice Oct. 1. They begin play with exhibition games against Concordia (St. Paul) on Oct. 31 and Minnesota State Mankato on Nov. 4, followed by the season opener Nov. 10 against Washington State.
"I feel like we're already better than last year in a lot of ways,'' Borton said. "We have more speed and more ballhandlers on the floor. We'll be a better defensive team. We're more athletic. We have a lot of players who can play different positions. I'm very excited about this team.''
Borton expects those ballhandlers to take some of the workload off Banham, enabling her to shift occasionally from point guard to shooting guard. She said freshman Shayne Mullaney of Eden Prairie can play the point, and freshman guard Mikayla Bailey of Maple Grove is capable of starting.
Banham said she got stronger last summer after scoring 580 points in her first season, the third-most of any freshman in the nation. She is excited at the prospect of playing on the wing, where she sometimes played during her high school career at Lakeville North. With 420 points this season, Banham could join Lindsay Whalen and Laura Coenen as the only Gophers to reach the 1,000-point mark in their first two seasons.
Despite her achievements, Banham ticked off a long list of improvements she hopes to make this season. "I want to be one of the best shooters in the Big Ten,'' said Banham, who will be co-captain with Micaella Riche. "I want to have the most rebounds, and a lot of steals and be a good defender. I know I'm listing everything you do in basketball, but that's honestly what I want to work on and get better at.''
Hirt missed all of her freshman season after tearing a knee ligament last October. Borton said she is practicing at full speed and will be expected to be a prolific scorer. Hirt is among a deeper group of post players, including Riche -- who improved substantially last season -- and senior Katie Loberg, who led the Gophers with 5.7 rebounds per game and was their third-leading scorer (9.1 ppg).
Borton said she could not comment on the status of Amanda Zahui B., a 6-5 center from Sweden who was signed by the Gophers in May. The Gophers announced in August that Zahui B. was not certified by the NCAA eligibility center. Borton said she could not address Zahui B.'s status because she is still recruiting her.